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Personal Trainers: A Modern Trend with a Rich History

By Jon, published on 06/03/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Health and Fitness > Personal Training > Sports Coaching: A History

A lot of people believe health and fitness to be a relatively new preoccupation which sprung from the hippy-ish trends of the 60’s and 70’s or even shows like Baywatch, which filled TV screens with its lively characters who candidly ran along white, sandy beaches showing off their perfect physiques.

However, the keeping fit goes back a lot further than this!

History shows that for our ancestors, keeping fit was a way of life rather than a leisure activity.

Centuries and even millennia ago, people didn’t have access to high-spec gym machines or personal trainer, and yet they were much fitter than modern man.

It often helps to look into the past in order to understand something on a deeper level, and this applies to sport, too.

So, let’s go back in time and take a look at what exercise was like before the days of Zumba and CrossFit, and explore the roots of personal fitness training.

Fitness: An Essential Survival Skill

Thousands of years ago, before the existence of society as it is known today, humans only had one thing to worry about: staying alive.

The physical developments of early man as well as their muscle mass followed a natural evolution which was mainly determined by physically demanding tasks which were required to survive in a wild environment full of threat.

Running, jumping and climbing were the only ways to escape these threats, so, in fact, our prehistoric ancestors worked out, built their cardio endurance and toned their bodies without even realising!

Survival was only possible if you hunted your food by chasing it, built shelter by lifting heavy objects, and learnt to fight for your life – like nature’s version of personal training.

Our ancestors would not have even considered the same benefits to physical activity that modern-day humans do.

Flexibility and agility was not the main focus of their skills, and they didn’t have access to or need for personalised training programs or advice on when to ‘train’ – it was all down to instinct and the need for quick thinking and wise actions.

Agriculture in the Neolithic Era

Agriculture came about some 8000 years before us, and this major development in human activity is often considered to mark the beginning of civilisation.

Having muscular strength and endurance was essential to ancient humans Our Neolithic ancestors would have needed a lot of strength to erect the mysterious stone circles ¦ source: Pixabay – luxstorm

Man, the former hunter-gatherer became a farmer, and his activity became regular and limited, with no more reason to jump, climb and chase animals to feed himself.

Over time, other useful habits, such as making ladders to climb, became a part of life and removed the need to climb trees and rocks.

Fitness Training in Antiquity: Preparing for War

Between human prehistory and the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, many civilisations have established themselves and also disappeared through war and conquest.

This includes the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Persians, as well as the Greeks and the Romans.

Each and every one of these civilisations imposed fitness programs on their young men to improve their chances of victory in war.

Preparation for battle became a lot more structured, as men worked towards certain fitness goals such as marching, running on uneven terrain, climbing to certain heights, carrying heavy objects, throwing weapons and fighting with their bare hands.

Outside of their military training, it was the Greeks under Herodotus and the Romans who began to celebrate the beauty and the strength of the human body, and saw fitness as a philosophical ideal and an essential part of education.

Interestingly, the phrase ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ comes from this era (mens sana in corpore sano), which marks the beginning of health and fitness as a lifestyle choice.

A Change of Focus in the Middle Ages

Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, chaos reigned in Europe as empires and kingdoms rose and fell, nations were invading and being invaded, and devastating epidemics such as the Black Death took their toll on human health.

Christianity spread across the continent, as did the belief that life on Earth was preparation for life elsewhere after death.

The body lost its importance when the soul, as the essence of man, became the centre of the populations’ concerns.

Fitness education and training sessions were forgotten and replaced with religious teaching.

Nevertheless, under the feudal system, the aristocracy and mercenaries were required to do any kind of physical training. This was mainly in preparation for their military service and only focussed on natural movements and martial skills.

The rest of the population worked in the fields, and so their physical exercise was a part of their manual labour.

The Renaissance: A New Beginning for Fitness

Between 1400 and 1600 the body became an area of interest in science, as the study of the human anatomy took off.

Human exercise physiology was a central part of the advancements in the study of biology and human health.

In 1420, the Italian humanist Vittorino da Feltre, who was considered to be one of the first modern educators, opened a school with physical education at the centre of its teaching.

The Book of Bodily Exercise, written in 1553 by a Spaniard called Cristobal Mendez, is considered to be the first work completely dedicated to physical exercise and its benefits.

The Renaissance marked the beginning of an era of scientific advancement Discoveries during the Renaissance era laid the foundations for exercise science studies today ¦ source: Pixabay – StockSnap

The book explained workouts, functional training techniques, games and sports from a medical point of view, and gave advice on preventing injury.

Another work on the human condition was De Arte Gymnastica by Girolamo Mercuriale, an Italian doctor, who wrote about hygiene, fitness nutrition and physical exercise.

Although its accuracy and breadth are far from the health and fitness books of today, this is believed to be the first book on sports medicine.

The Modern Age: Training for King and Country

The Industrial Revolution marked a clear transition from manual methods to the fabrication of goods using machinery.

The impact of this change on working methods changed the lifestyles of many, as humans took on more administrative and often more sedentary roles to earn their living.

At this point, dedicating time to exercise became more popular especially with the rise of nationalism in many European countries.

Staying in shape and being ready to fight in the event of war instilled a sense of pride for many men in themselves and their country.

Initiatives to work out ‘for pleasure’ were present all over Europe as the value for fitness grew exponentially.

  • In Germany, Johann Bernard Basedow opened a school specialising in games and exercise with wrestling, running, horse riding and dance included in the curriculum. Even the school uniform was designed to be comfortable and allow for flexibility.
  • In Sweden, Per Henrik Ling explored the principle of physical development with an emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of muscular strength and toning that could be achieved with working out at the gym, cardiovascular exercise, stretching and massages.
  • In Spain, Francisco Amoros founded a military academy and published a guide to gymnastics, physique and moral education.
  • In France, Hippolyte Triat founded the first ever gymnasium for the use of the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and young athletes. The facilities and emphasis on fitness expertise at this gymnasium is probably the earliest example of gyms as we know them today.
  • Even the USA joined in, with Catharine Beecher developing a fitness program to music which focussed on helping people get fit and become healthier overall.

The Evolution of the Fitness Industry

At the beginning of the 20th century, the use of fitness equipment for resistance training, strength training and building muscle mass using weights started to develop.

Bit by bit, the fitness industry grew as a key player in the global economy.

The last century was marked by the importance of competition, specialist sports and the emergence of organised group fitness classes and group training sessions which opened the industry to amateur athletes. Meanwhile, personal trainers kept the rich and famous fit and healthy – a service that has now become less exclusive and more affordable.

Contemporary fitness facilities share the rich history of physical exercise The gyms we know today are built on centuries of body conditioning ¦ source: Pixabay – profivideos

Professor Edmond Desbonnet encouraged the French population to take up a sport or start exercising by writing in reviews and magazines and including male and female athletes.

He went on to open a chain of health clubs – a key event in the fitness industry.

Another precursor to the fitness industry is Bernarr MacFadden, who became a guru of fitness culture in the USA. He emphasised the importance of physical health and adopting a healthy way of life through what he believed to be key to achieving this: minimalism and fasting.

The Future of Fitness Training

Over the next few decades, the fitness and personal training industries are predicted to keep on growing as bodybuilding and sophisticated machinery, as well as alternative workout methods such as Pilates, Wii Fit and personal training services with an online personal trainer make exercising more accessible and effective.

For those who are new to the world of fitness and need a personal fitness trainer at their side to motivate them, many possibilities are emerging, whereby they can set a personal fitness objective and receive tailored help and advice from an accredited fitness specialist with expertise in training program design and a personal trainer certification.

For those who prefer training alone and embrace new technology, fitness-tracking bracelets and watches are becoming a bigger part of day-to-day life – even for non-athletes!

For any athlete who wants to keep track of their own progress, the technology to do this is always developing to become more accurate and more helpful.

So, whether you need guidance from a certified personal trainer with essential fitness expertise, or you would simply like some advice on taking your training to the next level, lace up your trainers – the 21st century has something for you!


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